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Lawyer who faulted DiFrancesco says it cost him job

Originally appeared in the Star Ledger on 04/19/01

Lewis Markowitz took on one of the state's most powerful politicians when he wrote a 1998 report accusing Senate President Donald DiFrancesco of repeatedly violating legal ethics rules in DiFrancesco's other role as Scotch Plains township attorney.

And the lawyer said he paid a price.

In a confidential Oct. 20, 2000, letter to the township council, Markowitz alleged he was fired as special counsel because DiFrancesco vowed Markowitz would never work for the town again.

"The Senate president dictated that I should do no more legal work for the township of Scotch Plains," he wrote, adding that Mayor Martin Marks and several council members "succumbed to political pressure" and fired him.

A spokesman for DiFrancesco, now the acting governor, denied the charge yesterday and dismissed Markowitz as "deluded."

At the time of Markowitz's ouster, he was representing Scotch Plains in a lawsuit against K. Hovnanian Companies, the largest home builder in the state, which had paid DiFrancesco $225,000 to help settle a debt.

In the ongoing legal dispute, Hovnanian is seeking to overturn the township planning board's denial of a proposal to build 100 townhouses on property unrelated to DiFrancesco.

Markowitz had complained that DiFrancesco's acceptance of that payment was improper because the money first should have gone to satisfy $85,000 in back taxes on land owned by DiFrancesco family members. Markowitz also suggested the payment was made to curry favor with DiFrancesco as township attorney.

Marks yesterday denied Markowitz's allegations about the firing. He said that the Republican-controlled council had hired Markowitz, a Democrat, as special counsel because DiFrancesco had conflicts that prohibited him from handling certain cases as township attorney. Those cases involved Hovnanian projects.

When the Democrats took over the township council in January 1999, they replaced DiFrancesco as township attorney. The Republicans regained control later that year but did not rehire DiFrancesco. Marks said that because DiFrancesco's conflicts were no longer an issue, it made sense to remove Markowitz from the Hovnanian case.

"I think Mr. Markowitz assumed that Mr. DiFrancesco was putting pressure on the township, and that is simply not the case," said Marks. "This was almost a pure monetary consideration. Why have extra attorneys on the case when you don't need one?"

Markowitz declined yesterday to discuss the letter or his work for Scotch Plains, saying it was protected by attorney-client privilege. But he added: "I know of no letter that I wrote to my client that was anything other than 100 percent factually accurate."

Tom Wilson, the acting governor's spokesman, said Markowitz's claims about why he was fired were groundless.

"This is more outlandish charges from a man whose credibility is suspect at best," said Wilson. "It's already been demonstrated that he's not beneath political attacks. This is simply another attempt to discredit the governor."

Lawrence Woodruff, the township planning board's attorney, defended Markowitz yesterday.

"I think everything (Markowitz) did in this was fair, was well thought out. He did the kind of a job a good attorney should do," said Woodruff, a Republican who said he is a friend and supporter of DiFrancesco.

Woodruff, who worked closely with Markowitz on the Hovnanian case, said he did not know why the lawyer was fired.

In his letter, Markowitz said his firing stemmed back to the June 17, 1998, report he submitted to the township council. The confidential report, disclosed this week, alleged a pattern of ethical misconduct by DiFrancesco as township attorney. Among other accusations, the report said DiFrancesco kept his stake in a parcel of land secret while acting to benefit himself, his family and Hovnanian.

Most of the report's conclusions were co-signed by Douglas Hansen, a Republican lawyer and another special counsel for the township at the time. Hansen has since been appointed township attorney. Hansen yesterday declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

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